Life Drawing Essays
When I was in the middle of the journey of my life, I decided to learn to draw. No, I wasn’t lost in a dark, enclosing forest, but it was the Manhattan equivalent: a midweek dinner party that had turned the corner to eleven-thirty and now seemed likely never to end at all. The host was a terrific cook, but one of those seven-course terrific cooks, disappearing into the kitchen for a quarter of an hour at a time to execute the latest Ferran Adrià recipe, while we all secretly gripped the underside of the dinner table, realizing that the babysitter meter was running and we would have to be up again in six hours to dress the kids and get them to school.
Having exhausted the exhausted neighbors to my left and right during the previous course breaks, I turned at last to my neighbor across the table. I knew that we had kids in the same school, and that he was married to the woman beside me. He was curly-haired and handsome in the pugilistic way that looks as though it ought to include a broken tooth. I asked him what he did.
“I’m an artist,” he said. “A teacher. I teach people how to draw.” He spoke with what I would come to recognize as a diffidence touched by, well, touchiness.
“Would you teach me how to draw?” I asked, for reasons that at the moment seemed as clear-flying as a lark in spring air, but that, over the next two years, receded and rose mysteriously, like fish swimming in a muddy aquarium.
“Sure,” he said, only a little surprised. “Come by the studio.” His name was Jacob Collins, and he explained that he supervised an “atelier” in midtown, called the Grand Central Academy of Art.
I said that I was going off to California to speak on Manet—did I intend that to be credentialling? I suppose I did—but that I would certainly come the week after.
He seemed to stiffen, even wince, at the mention of the French painter’s name. I might have said the man who painted the poker-playing dogs.
“You don’t like Manet?” I said, wondering. Didn’t everybody like Manet?
“Actually, I—” he began brutally, and then I thought I saw his wife, across the table, shoot him a “Don’t start!” look, and he shrugged.
This was interesting. The realists I knew in the art world defended their occupation the way the religious believers I know defend theirs, as one more spiritual option within the liberal system: See, I’m just exploring the possibilities of pluralism. This was clearly something else. This guy really didn’t like Manet!
When I got back from California, I armed myself with a sketchbook and a set of pencils and went to visit the Grand Central Academy of Art. The academy was in the same midtown building as the Mechanics Institute Library, a favorite retreat of mine already. I climbed the creaky wooden stairs, took a step into the atelier, and blinked. I was in a series of rooms that could have been found in Paris at the Académie in 1855 or, for that matter, in Rome in 1780. Easels everywhere, and among them plaster casts of classical statues, improbably white and grave and well-muscled and oversized. The statues weren’t displayed, as they are at the Met, at dignified intervals, but bunched together, higgledy-piggledy, so that the effect was that of a cocktail party of tall white plaster people who worked out a lot. The Discus Thrower frowned and threw his discus; a Venus wrapped herself up, modestly; an Apollo looked toward the Korean delis and salad bars just below; an incomplete David, with his slingshot, gazed into the distance. The scene was almost too much like one’s mental image of it, as though a student interested in New York politics had opened the door to a downtown clubhouse and found corpulent, cigar-smoking politicians in porkpie hats and short-hemmed pants and vests with “Tammany” written in bleeding type across them.
A cluster of students in mildly worn jeans worked on their drawings. Each hand moved, back and forth, up and down from the wrist, and the world seemed to flow onto the sketcher’s paper like silver water taking the form of things seen, subtle gradations of gray and black that didn’t just notate the things in an expressive shorthand but actually mirrored them, in a different medium and on a different scale.
Jacob had someone set me up with an easel, and then gave me a small plaster cast of an eye—something taken from a statue perhaps three times life size. “Just try and copy that,” he said.
I held my pencil tight and began. I had a graduate degree in art history, and I liked to draw, though I did it very badly. I could make crude line-drawing faces, which, depending on the direction of the “eyebrows,” might register vanity, conceit, worry, or anger. A squiggled line, for instance, drawn as a girl’s eyes, looks like self-delight. If the hieroglyphs of emotion were that simple, how much harder, my modern-art-trained mind demanded, could the work of representation, mere mirroring, really be?
I stabbed at the paper, trying to copy the contour of the plaster eye, and then looked at what I had done. I had just made a hard line that limped awkwardly along the top of the page, enclosing a kind of egg shape, meant to be the pupil. I looked at the easels around me, at the play of shadow and shade, the real look of the thing, which seemed so natural. I flipped a page in my notebook and, gripping my pencil tighter and staring back at the eye, tried again. It was even worse, like a football inside a pair of parentheses.
After two more flipped pages, Jacob came over. In a gentle tone very different from his dinner-party manner, he said, “Yes, well . . . I would argue that the space you’re asserting here in this corner could be seen as something much spacier. I think you could allow these intervals to . . .” He struggled for words. “To breathe more, without betraying the thing you’re drawing.” It was the most elaborately polite way possible of saying that the circle on the page meant to indicate the pupil was way too big in relation to the ridiculous double line meant to represent the orbit.
I started over on a new page, and tried to stare the damn thing down. The plaster eye looked back at me opaquely, unforgivingly. I took a deep breath and tried to let my hand follow the line in front of me. But how did you distinguish the raised bits of the eye from the hollow bits, the ups from the downs? The light fell across the thing, creating darks and lights, but how to register these with a pencil point? I tried crosshatched shapes in the darker corners, but this made the eye look like a badly wrought Mayan numeral over which someone had scribbled tic-tac-toe boards. My chest tightened, and my breath came short. It was impossible.
As I crossed Sixth Avenue two hours later, I was filled with feelings of helplessness and stupidity and impotence that I had not experienced since elementary school. Why was I so unable to do something so painfully simple? Whatever sense of professional competence we feel in adult life is less the sum of accomplishment than the absence of impossibility: it’s really our relief at no longer having to do things we were never any good at doing in the first place—relief at never again having to dissect a frog or memorize the periodic table.
Or having to make a drawing that looks like the thing you’re drawing. I hadn’t learned to draw because I had never been any good at drawing. Now I knew that I never would be. I tried to forget about the morning, and when I saw Jacob in the halls of our kids’ school I exchanged brief, hooded embarrassed looks with him, as one might with a failed blind date.
The little urge that had made me want to learn to draw was still intact, though, and, for the next six months, tugged on my insides like a bad conscience. Partly it was simple curiosity. How do they do that trick? Another reason was compensatory. For all the years I’d spent talking about pictures, the truth was that I had no real idea of how to draw or of what it felt like to do it. I would mistrust a poetry critic who couldn’t produce a rhyming couplet. Could one write about art with no idea how to draw? It was true that the art I had written about was mostly of a kind that had stored life drawing away in the attic, as a youthful relic from summer camp. The older I got, though, the more I was pulled toward pure craft, unalloyed accuracy, the struggle to translate the surface of the world into a sentence or a sketch. And if I was going to study this thing I wanted to go there with a real hard-ass.
Still, I would have let the plan to learn drawing molder in the pile of my unfulfilled ambitions—the pile that sits on the desk of life right next to the pile of escaped obligations—had I not bumped into Jacob one day at our kids’ school, trapped in a corridor as he waited for a conference.
“Hey,” he said. “If you’re still interested, why don’t you come around to my studio sometime and watch while I draw? We can just talk.” And so that Friday I went over to his studio to watch him draw.
It was an old renovated stable and, in décor, was like a smaller version of the atelier—classical busts on shelves and even a hanging skeleton—but more intimate, and with Jacob’s own sober paintings (a genial-looking older man, beautiful half-torsos of grave young women, a Berkshire winter landscape or two) hanging above our heads. There was a black Lab, who nuzzled visitors, and slept, and barked loudly when someone came to the door. Instead of the fluorescents of the atelier, there were jerry-rigged spots, small lamps clamped as needed to wooden pillars to throw a narrow tunnel of warm light on the object to be drawn, or, set wide, to make the light come raking across the model.
I liked it there, a lot. So, for the next year or so, I went often to the studio on Friday afternoons, and kept Jacob company as he drew in semi-darkness. Sometimes there was a skull or bust to draw, sometimes a naked person stretched out on a platform up front. I had an easel, to be sure, and would make a mark or two as I watched him work.
Jacob drew and drew and drew. His paintings had a sombre, melancholic cast, in the manner of Thomas Eakins. But his drawings were prestidigitations, magical evocations of the thing seen, pencil drawings as accurate as photographs but with the ability that a photograph lacks to distinguish the essentials. He drew still-lifes, nudes, and portraits in the same timeless, distilled style.
And yet they were far from flowing or automatic. Week after week, the same sitter or skull was lit in place, and, though the act of drawing would go on, you would sometimes wonder when it would happen. He made minimal progress from hour to hour, but never left his station. Watching Jacob draw was a bit like watching a climber on a sheer rockface, slowly trying out one crampon and then another, looking for a foothold, advancing a couple of feet and then spending the night on the rockface in his bag, upright—albeit a climber engaged in a steady conversation with a friend on the lost art of true rock climbing.
“I always wanted to be doing this,” he said, meaning drawing in the classical style. “And I couldn’t understand why the world wouldn’t see it as legitimate. I drew from when I was really, really small—anything, comic books, Spider-Man. And then, when I started in art school, the attitude was ‘That’s great, so good, and, you know, pretty soon you’ll outgrow this!’ ” He laughed. Jacob was always trying to strike a decent mean between affirmation of his secret faith that art had been going wrong since the eighteen-sixties and his desire not to get caught up in the reactionary grievance-keeping that disfigured much of the revivalist world he lived in. “You’ll outgrow wanting to draw the world as it is, searching for this beauty, this place where light and the body meet—that was the attitude of most of the art teachers I had,” he went on. “So I had to re-create a world in which I could do the kind of drawing I wanted to do. I wasn’t alone in this. There were quite a few of us trying, and, bit by bit, and book by book, and practice by practice, we tried to remake the world of atelier realism that had been discarded and abandoned.” Over time, he assembled a group of teachers and students and enthusiasts, all given over to the practice of classical drawing from life and plaster casts, and from that nucleus came this studio and then the Grand Central Academy.
As in any marginal community, there were, I learned, fierce schisms and expulsions. I say marginal; it was marginal to me, but it wasn’t marginal to the people in it. Micro-worlds don’t look micro to the microbes. (And what we think are macro worlds don’t look macro to the next biggest thing up; Apollo smiles down from Parnassus on career retrospectives at MOMA.) Like all subcultures, this was a complete society, with rules and rivalries. Jacob referred disdainfully to “Tomming realists,” by which he meant realist artists who bowed and scraped before the masters of the avant-garde plantation, apologizing for their practice and just asking for the freedom to hoe a few acres of representational oats. Jacob was Nat Turner: he didn’t want his own back forty; he wanted the keys to the big house.
Sometimes we would talk about our kids, and sometimes about music—he loved to play Bellini and Verdi in the studio, and was trying to master string trios with his son and daughter. It was only when we talked about art that we disagreed: he hated the triumph of modernism, and I did not, and there were moments when I felt a bit like a lapsed Roman Catholic who, out looking for a good Unitarian to show him a new spiritual path, has found instead a cheerful, welcoming Satanist, though one with a black Lab and kids at the same school. Jacob wanted to rid his language of any taint of the age of the avant-garde. “I don’t even know what to call what I do,” he said. “ ‘Realism’ is the obvious name, but realism is a specific thing from modern art, all that Courbet-derived stuff, meaning the primacy of belonging to the world out there, and being accepted as an agitator. It’s sort of the opposite of what I’m after. ‘Traditionalism’ is O.K., because it’s based on lost traditions, but that makes it sound too much like just repeating something older. Neo-traditionalist? How can something traditional be neo?” The best half-serious label he could find was “traditional realist revivalism,” and he had to admit that it still wasn’t very good. He knew that you couldn’t erase history; on the other hand, what if history was all wrong? “You can’t go back,” he said once, sighing. “I know that. But you can look back.”
Over the weeks of listening and watching, I began at last to draw the thing in front of me, or to try to. Jacob had made one adjustment in what might generously be called my “technique.” Instead of holding the pencil tight and stabbing away, I was to hold it underhand, and make large sweeping, fencing-like gestures that might block out the general shape of whatever it was we were looking at. And then he told me to place an imaginary clock face on top of those first broad, easy underhand gestures.
“Just make tilts in time,” he said. “Imagine that there’s a clock overlaying what you’re drawing. Then make one tilt on the clock, then check to see if it matches up with what you see, look to see if it’s at the proper angle on the clock face, and then correct it. Make it the right time. Now, there, you’ve got that line”—a descending scrawl meant to indicate the upper slope of a skull we were drawing—“and it’s at, oh, what would you say, twelve-ten? I mean in relation to the vertical axis.”
He stepped back and looked at my easel. “I would argue that, if you look at it again, the time on this clock is really much closer to twelve-eleven, or twelve-twelve. . . .” He trailed off and looked fiercely at the page.
“Twelve-thirteen?” I said, not wanting to seem completely blind.
“Yeah! Maybe you’re right. Twelve-thirteen.” Then he said, formally, “That’s an inquiry I’d like to pursue,” and erased my line and let me add another, two degrees lower.
Nothing had prepared me for how one could fix a line merely by rubbing it out and implanting another line a bare thirty-second of an inch above or below. The choice of the first line could be freely made, unbounded, improvisational. For you could always erase and remake; the eraser was the best friend a would-be artist had. And the erased line, still barely visible beneath, had an eloquence of its own, since it smudged the space in a way that suggested pentimenti, second thoughts, a hazy penumbra of light and shadow. Light leaks into the world, and an erased line with a line above suggests that leakage. Nothing in a graduate degree in art history prepares you for the eloquence of the eraser.
I looked again at the erased space and the new scrawl. To my shock, it did have the faintest impress of anatomy, of organic life, of the way a jaw actually joins a skull.
“Yeah,” Jacob said, nodding, as he looked at the new lean of the line, and touching my shoulder as though my pencil had somehow just spat out a Raphael cartoon. He cheered up and went back to his own easel. “Now don’t worry about, you know, drawing or art. Just draw that clock hand in your head, one contour meeting the next, and ask, What time is it between them?” And so for hours, weeks, that’s what I tried to do. I wasn’t really drawing. But at least I was making tilts in time.
You can’t go back, but you can look back, Jacob had said, and certainly he looked, and saw, for himself. We went to a show of Bronzino drawings at the Met, and I expected him to be impressed. Who was a greater master of classical drawing than Bronzino?
But Jacob was struck by how quickly Bronzino had settled on his solutions. “Well, now, he has this kind of model in his head, a formula. He sees a child and he sees these orbs.” He gestured. “Three of them. Three balls, intersecting like pawnbrokers’ balls: chubby legs, chubby chest, chubby head, and boom—a cherub.” He made three quick circles with his right hand, and the typical form of a Bronzino cherub was written briefly in the air. “Do you notice how he has so much mastery of certain areas, and then he has the solution to others ready in his head?” He looked harder at the face of a Madonna, and sighed. “There’s a smoothness, a slightly comic-book-complacent solution, to his chins and ears.”
We walked on and scrutinized a couple of well-muscled torsos. “You know, you can tell when someone’s really looking at a body by the absence of parallel dents. When a person is standing or resting, the dent on one side of the body is usually met by a fullness on the other. When you get these two dents”—he pointed to what he meant—“it looks sort of stylish, but it’s not really true, and you sense that. You rarely get a model whose rib cage is so clearly articulated and whole.”
Looking at these beautiful drawings, I now realized that they were not found visions, or lines of poetry: they were made of tacit compromises between agreed-on fictions and hard-sought facts. Bronzino was called a mannerist not because that was where he happened to fall in the metaphysical chess game called “art history” but because he really had a manner. It was made of double dents and triple cherubic circles. Some fight between the ideal and the real, far from being a Neoplatonic abstraction, was actually going on in each drawing: when it tipped too far toward the ideal, it became a cartoon and lifeless; tip it too narrowly toward the actual, and it lost all the poetic sweep of the Grand Manner. The more you instructed yourself about the risks—the tussle of sight and muscle and bone—the more you appreciated the triumphs. The thing itself was argued out inch by inch on the page, not a foot or two above or just beside it, on the label.
We came at last to a small, unspectacular drawing of an old man. “I think this is the best drawing here,” Jacob said. “Look how he’s worried his way through that head, through the wrinkles—he’s looking all the time in this one, and not letting his hand do the thinking for him.”
At the end of the show, we stepped back out into the hall of the Met. “I can’t say I’m too impressed by old Bronzino,” Jacob said. “There aren’t a lot of great drawings in there.”
There was a mix-and-match show of Met drawings and prints on the way to the stairs, and we looked at an Alex Katz. Jacob made a face. It did look smooth, generalized, conceptualized, and simplified to the point of vacuity. Of course, I told myself, that was the point—to be smooth, stenographic, and direct—but for the moment I luxuriated in the originality of a shocked response.
“The suckiness of it,” Jacob said. “I want my drawing not to suck.” He was goading me, just a little, I knew, with a half smile somewhere six levels down.
“It’s a style,” I said. “Deliberately smooth and simple.”
“Simple, because who needs good?” he teased. We inched toward an Andrea Mantegna, a bizarre engraving from the early fourteen-seventies of Silenus, the hideous and yet entrancing fat man. Jacob stopped.
“That is great!” he murmured. “I used to keep a Mantegna up in the studio just for hope. I mean, look at that.” I knew the Mantegna was great, but, for the first time, I thought I saw why it was great: the discipline of drawing in play with an instinctive feeling for form, an unwillingness to compromise on what a fat drunken old oracle would look like—those rolls on his thighs, the three chins, not neat orbs of cherub-chubbiness but real human lard—intermeshed with the dignity of myth. My hand tingled at the thought of trying to draw that way. I had always loved Mantegna, liked Alex Katz, enjoyed Bronzino; but now I understood that the intuitions had arguments, that the feelings were matched by facts. A drawing was a surface of minute claims and compromises and clichés—some places where the received or even idealized wisdom was accepted and some places where it was argued out and a new truth arrived at.
We stopped for coffee afterward, and I asked Jacob why, given his skill at seeing and showing the world as it was, he never wanted to draw the particulars of this world as it is, the world that we found ourselves in, where people met at endless dinner parties. He drew his kids, beautifully, but without their iPods and Game Boys and VitaminWaters. Why not draw as a novelist might write, with the appurtenances and accessories of this time?
He looked at me and seemed almost angry. “No, that’s—you’ve so absorbed the premises of modern realism into your head that you can’t see past it. Why didn’t Michelangelo draw people buying fish, instead of nudes and gods? He was looking for some idea of beauty, rooted in this world”—he made a gesture around the coffee shop, taking in everything, light and time and the human forms seated there—“that didn’t need an iPod to justify it. He really had an idea of timeless beauty. Why is beauty less interesting to you than journalism?”
Although I found the certainty of Jacob’s exclusions odd, they had their resonance. I had come to feel not just inadequate as an art critic, in the absence of any skill, but also alienated from art in its current guise. Learning to draw was my way of confronting my disillusion with some of the louder sonorities and certitudes of the art with which I had grown up and for which I had once been a fierce advocate. For, surely, if there was absurdity in writing about art without being able to draw, there was even more comedy in valuing craft and praising mere cunning—in finding yourself trying to write skillfully about the purposefully skill-less. I could recite by heart the catechism: art had in the past century emancipated itself from mere description, and cultivated an expertise less artisanal but no less demanding—conceptual, historically conscious, made of mind and thought. Over the years, however, the absence of true skill—the skill to do something with your fingers at the command of your mind, which can be done only by a few, after long practice—unmanned my love, and that created a problem for me. I could parse, and praise, a Jeff Koons fabrication or a Bruce Nauman video, but was I really in love with things so remote from the ancient daily struggle to make something look like something else? Someone out of sorts with the practice of an art form can still be a critic; someone out of sorts with the premise of an art form is merely a scold. A jazz critic who does not like improvisation does not like jazz. Yet I was still happiest in museums, and thought I might remember why by learning to draw.
The funny thing was that Jacob knew the catechism, too. I had been shocked to discover that a portrait that hung near his easel was of Meyer Schapiro, one of a handful of art historians who had invented the humanist appreciation of abstract art, and, it turned out, Jacob’s great-uncle. Jacob knew the score. But what if he was right, and the whole thing had been a mistake, and we all had to start over from scratch, or at least from a sketch? It was a possibility worth looking at.
Later that week in the studio, there was a nude model, a perfectly muscled young man named Nate. Jacob made another correction in my drawing. He had me hold the pencil underhand again, and start by making sweeping, open guesses at the form, and then looking at the imaginary clock, erasing the off lines, correcting, making tilts in time.
But, as I stared into the impossible landscape of ripples and nubs and shadows in Nate’s torso, Jacob said, “Look into his torso and find a new form, another shape to draw. Something outside your symbol set.”
I looked puzzled, and he explained, “I mean, don’t draw a chest, or what you think a chest looks like. The ideas you’ve got in your head about the way things look—get rid of them. Find something else in there to draw. Find a dog. The outline of some small African nation. A face.” He came around to hover over my shoulder. “See there, right in the space beneath his breastbone, I see this kind of snooty-looking butler, his chin pointing out and his nose in the air and his eyes half shut. Do you see him?” I squinted and looked, and then I did. Sort of: a face implicit in the accidents of light and shadow and flesh.
“O.K. Just draw the butler with the side of your pencil, shade by shade, and you’ll be drawing him.” He gestured toward Nate. “Draw the snooty butler, and you’ll start a solid passage.”
I learned to burrow in, underhand, eraser at the ready, searching for swelled-up bullfrogs and smiling bats and butlers with their noses in the air and all the other odd shapes that the play of light on flesh produced. The way out was, homeopathically, the way back in: lose your schematic conventions by finding some surprising symbol or shape in the welter of shades, and draw that. Here was the brain’s natural language of representation, as Leonardo knew, when he counselled artists, in the first true break toward life drawing, to look at the patterns of moss on cave walls and visualize clouds.
The ultimate kitsch representation of art-making is the moment in the movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy” when Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo, desperate to break his symbol set of divine likenesses, sees the nebulous form of God creating Adam in the clouds above his head. Now I saw that this scoffed-at scene is a purely pragmatic image of creativity: Michelangelo needed to break through his symbol set by finding new shapes to look at. Searching in the clouds for figures is the most rational course for an avid and alert artist to follow. We can’t know if he saw his ceiling in the clouds, but he may have squinted and tried to see clouds, or butlers, in his ceiling.
Why do life drawings look like life? Why do these collections of shrewdly borrowed shapes and broken lines strike us as real? After all, what is presented to our retina when we look at the bleached skull or the five and a half feet of naked person—the particular riot of color and light reflections, pink and white and dark—looks nothing like the six inches of orderly silver-to-black line marks on ivory paper. Even line itself, the assertion of a contour, however nuanced and optical the shadings within, is as fictional as a quotation mark. The process, as the Bronzino drawings showed, must involve some play of the “conceptual” (the shapes we know) and the “perceptual” (the shades we see). But how?
One view, which lingers in the social sciences, though it was long ago discarded in psychology, is that the language of line drawing is all conceptual, as artificial and in need of being learned as the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Yet every honest observer senses that a life drawing, no matter how many pawnbrokers’ balls and snooty butlers it includes, has an edge of persuasive illusion. My drawings of Nate didn’t look like Nate because that’s what drawings of Nate look like. They looked like Nate because, however ineptly, they showed something of the way Nate looked.
Drawing has conventions, though. What counts as convincing now isn’t the same as what counted as convincing in medieval times. In the twentieth century, E. H. Gombrich argued that in drawings conventions always interact with perceptual information: “schemas,” conventional symbolic images, come first, and then we correct them bit by bit as we observe and adjust them to life.
But it now seems possible that the tonal drawing is the mind’s first draft. In the nineteen-seventies, the cognitive psychologist David Marr formalized the idea that, in effect, we see the real world first as a series of life drawings, as a shaded play of light falling on the world—what Marr called, half jokingly, a “two-and-a-half-dimensional sketch,” a field of cells that represents information about a surface or an edge. Yet those mental sketches are of no use unless they’re corralled by higher-level frames into discrete, fixed shapes—into exactly the “symbol set” that Jacob was trying to get me to discard. Some of those frames help to orient us in space, distinguish up from down and left from right, but some are more richly symbolic: they help us sort out recurring forms from mere incidents of light. We turn shades into shapes, and then shapes into symbols.
The new view is that our Western life-drawing tradition is a neat bit of cognitive jujitsu; the sophisticated “optical” rendering of generalized regions and nuanced shade actually represents the more “primitive” mental map. It took Leonardo and Raphael to show us what the mind’s eye sees first—regions and shadings, instead of conceptual shapes and things—while every cartoonist shows us what it sees second. In fact, the new idea suggests that life drawing is less an acquired instrument of slow-crawling craft, and more just something back there that we delve deep to find again. This may in turn help explain the enduring mystery of why the oldest of all human representations, the cave paintings of Altamira, Lascaux, and Chauvet, are expertly rendered as shaded, three-dimensional life drawings, full of persuasive highlight and shadow. The caveman in us still draws what he sees, until the Egyptian in us interferes. (Certain language-disabled kids can make drawings that seem precociously optical, and, where people used to claim that the emergence of art is proof of symbolic, language-based culture, the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey has argued that the existence of the perfectly modulated cave paintings suggests that the people who made them didn’t yet know how to talk.)
Yet the “symbolic frames” that organize our representation of vision don’t seem to be hardwired; they change all the time. We can learn to draw from life, but we can also learn to understand those abstract funny faces, with their movable eyebrows. This is why, though what visual psychology can say about drawing is rich, what it can say about art is limited. Symbolic games aren’t set. The seeing mind, or the drawing hand, is like a dealer in a poker game, who, as the players get bored with five-card draw or seven-card stud, calls out a new variant: now lowest hand triumphs; now deuces are wild; now the highest hand and the lowest hand both can take the pot. A cartoonish Philip Guston scrawl or a slick John Currin contour can both be winners.
Drawing is one of those things which sit on the uneasy and bending line between instinct and instruction, where seeming perversity eventually trumps pleasure as the card players and the kibbitzers interact and new thrills are sought. And this truth was the source of Jacob’s discontent. His real dream, I saw, was to drive the kibbitzers from the temple of card playing, as mine was to become a card player, not a kibbitzer. But, in truth, kibbitzers and card players, observers and artists, shades and shapes and symbols are all parts of a single game, shuffled together in the big bluff we call culture. Without the card players, as Jacob knew, there was no skill in the game, but without the kibbitzers there was no skin in it, no point to watching. In fact, without the kibbitzers you couldn’t even call the activity a game, more just an obsession—which, at times, is what it seemed to be for Jacob, and for me.
For a few months, I had been searching for strange shapes to break my symbol set. One day, when Nate was posing, I began to make quick stabs, and sketches. I saw a kind of hamster with soft rabbit ears where his shoulder joined his arm, its blunt snout pressing toward the eyes, and I tentatively drew that. I was following the image, doing sight-system checking, sketching the animal shapes, making tilts in time, rubbing out the weaker lines and letting the better ones bloom . . . and, miraculously, the outline of an arm appeared, and a shoulder, and it all looked more or less right.
It was a terrible drawing, I knew, but it was not a conceptual schema of an arm and shoulder. It was some recognizable rendering of the pattern of light in front of me. Jacob came over and said, “Yeah, that’s got some of the shape. I would argue that you could erase here just slightly.” It was, as I say, a terrible drawing—the core was way too wide, so that I had given Nate a Herculean expanse of torso, way out of proportion to the arms—but the relation between arm and shoulder was almost human, almost recognizably true. It was the best thing I had ever drawn, and I realized that I hadn’t drawn it as I had imagined, God’s hand finally resting on mine to steal a true contour from the world. No, I had made it up out of small, stale parts and constant reapplications of energy and observation, back and forth. I stood back. The good bit was about two and a half inches long, and no good at all by any standard. But it was a stab at a shape seen, at a pattern of incoming light and shade that made a shape. I was drawing.
In truth, the rhythm of fragment and frustration, of erasure and error and slow emergence of form, was familiar. I’d hoped the drawing would be an experience of resistance and sudden yielding, like the first time you make love, where first it’s strange and then it’s great, and afterward always the same. Instead, drawing turned out to be like every other skill you acquire: skating, sauce-making, guitar playing. Ugly bits slowly built up, discouragingly not at all like what you want, until it is. You learn, laboriously, the thumping octave bass with the chord two octaves above, and suddenly you are playing “Martha My Dear” and then you have it and you play along with the record and are half sad and half happy: that’s all the magic of it? The bad news, I was finding out, was that drawing was just like everything else you learned to do. The good news was that drawing was like everything else, and even I could learn to do it.
There was one missing piece left to discover, though. One Friday I went to the studio to draw, and there was a naked woman there. We had been drawing Nate, and Nate was fine—but Anna was gorgeous, red-headed and voluptuous, and I swallowed hard as I set out to stare at her and find a frog or a snooty butler or a newly independent African nation in the burrows and hollows of her body.
“Hi,” she said when I came in. She looked bored beyond words, though she chewed gum with a thoughtful, rhythmic grace. I had just come back from a parent-teacher conference, and Jacob and I talked briefly about fifth-grade curriculums.
“Our kids go to the same school,” I called out to Anna, who was posing under the hot spotlight. She moved her red hair away from her face, and readjusted her torso.
“Yeah, so I gather,” she said. She had an old-fashioned, Seventh Avenue accent.
I stared between her breasts innocently, virtuously—and found, at last, a spaniel on its back, its paws in the air. (My kids had just got a dog.) I began to touch and erase and touch again, and Anna’s body took shape under my pencil. Jacob came over and corrected my drawing. I had mismeasured the proportions between breast and pubis. “Measurement is so essential,” he said. He explained that we always make heads and hands oversized, and fill in the middle, as though the places of maximum sensory attention naturally demand the most attention. But I still couldn’t get the proportions of Anna’s torso right. So, as Jacob had taught me, I held my hands up in a small square to adjust the “sight-size”—making both the thing seen and the thing drawn fit into the same square—and then, in frustration, held a thumb out and squinted with one eye so that I could have an easier measure of the distance, as I saw it. Hands in small square, thumb out, and squinting—my God, I was acting like every artist in every silent movie I had ever seen!
Jacob came over and looked at my nude. “You’ve got this too far down.” He pointed to the light-gray haze I meant for her pubic triangle. It should have been much higher up. I erased and began to adjust. “You’ve centered it, because in your symbol set that’s where it belongs. Look again.” I moved the little triangular schema up and over.
“Her nipples, you’ve got them centered, too,” Jacob said. “They are at angles akimbo to each other. Look at the angle. Tell time.” I pushed one nipple a smidge off center, and left the other one alone, and then made the pubic triangle more like the bicycle-seat shape it really was. Suddenly, she was alive—right there on the page! I had a flick of desire for a mark I had just made on a page with a pencil. Appetite drives drawing; that’s what makes sure that there is no such thing as abstract art. I stepped back. It was not just closer to the truth but sexy, real, my own paltry Galatea.
Common Core Standards for English Language Arts
3.4 With guidance and support from adults, produce writing in which the development and organization are appropriate to task and purpose.
3.5 With guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, and editing.
4.4 Produce clear and coherent writing (including multiple-paragraph texts) in which the development and organization are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
5.5 With guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach. (Editing for conventions should demonstrate command of Language standards 1–3 up to and including grade 5.)
SPEAKING AND LISTENING
3.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 3 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
3.6 Speak in complete sentences when appropriate to task and situation in order to provide requested detail or clarification.
4.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 4 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
4.3 Ask and answer questions about information from a speaker, offering appropriate elaboration and detail.
4.6 Differentiate between contexts that call for formal English (e.g., presenting ideas) and situations where informal discourse is appropriate (e.g., small-group discussion); use formal English when appropriate to task and situation. (See grade 4 Language standards 1 and 3 for specific expectations.)
5.3 Summarize the points a speaker or media source makes and explain how each claim is supported by reasons and evidence, and identify and analyze any logical fallacies.
5.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, using formal English when appropriate to task and situation. (See grade 5 Language standards 1 and 3 for specific expectations.)
3.3 Use knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening.
3.6 Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate conversational, general academic, and domain-specific words and phrases, including those that signal spatial and temporal relationships (e.g., After dinner that night we went looking for them).
5.6 Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, including those that signal contrast, addition, and other logical relationships (e.g., however, although, nevertheless, similarly, moreover, in addition).
Visual Arts Content Standards for California State Public Schools
2.0 Creative Expression
2.4 Create a work of art based on the observation of objects and scenes in daily life, emphasizing value changes.
4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
4.2 Identify successful and less successful compositional and expressive qualities of their own works of art and describe what might be done to improve them.
1.0 Artistic Perception
1.2 Describe how negative shapes/forms and positive shapes/forms are used in a chosen work of art.
2.0 Creative Expression
2.6 Use the interaction between positive and negative space expressively in a work of art.
4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
4.4 Assess their own works of art, using specific criteria, and describe what changes they would make for improvement.
English–Language Arts Standards for California Public Schools
1.0 Writing Strategies
1.1 Create a single paragraph:
a. Develop a topic sentence.
b. Include simple supporting facts and details.
1.0 Writing Strategies
1.2 Create multiple-paragraph compositions.
1.10 Edit and revise selected drafts to improve coherence and progression by adding, deleting, consolidating, and rearranging text.
1.0 Writing Strategies
1.1 Create a multiple-paragraph expository composition.
1.6 Edit and revise manuscripts to improve the meaning and focus of writing by adding, deleting, consolidating, clarifying and rearranging words and sentences.